Written by Jillian Murray
The project Convergence (Artistic Director, Dr. Aston K. McCullough) took place from September 2022 to February 2023, fusing together elements of live musicians, filming, and Five College faculty and dancers collaborating to create an artistic piece representative of the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Research Lab, Laboratory for the Scientific Study of Dance (LAB:SYNC), at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These preliminary findings were derived from The METRIC Study (Measurement of professional dance training exposures and health correlates in 18-85 year old adults).
As an undergraduate student in my senior year, this was a unique experience that provided me the opportunity to dance with other undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty across the Five College consortium. I was invited into the process in the Fall, where I learned movement motifs in McCullough’s (LAB:SYNC Director) advanced modern class, which were later used in rehearsals to form a given set movement or phrase. McCullough used these rehearsals to creatively layer these motifs and used variations of the material to explore how the choreography, originally intended for an individual mover, could be altered to allow for partnering and group interaction.
The five motifs explored were all unique in their movement qualities – some of them incorporated vigorous action which included fast jumps and turns, while others afforded the chance to melt into the movement and explore fluidity. As the fall semester drew to a close, the movement section generated from these motifs, which highlighted the undergraduate and graduate students in the project, was set. I was eager to return from winter break to begin dancing with the Five College faculty and learn the other sections of Convergence.
In January of 2023, my peers and I returned to Amherst two weeks early from the winter break to begin the process of working with faculty from the Five Colleges. In collaboration with McCullough, professors Chris Aiken (Smith College), Barbie Diewald (Mount Holyoke College), and Jenna Riegel (Amherst College) contributed to this complex project.
There were four movement sections in the work, one of which was an improvised section for the faculty, while the other three sections were collaborative amongst all dancers. As an undergraduate, getting the opportunity to dance alongside my professors in this work was a wonderful, unique experience. Usually, I watch my professors demonstrate movement material in classes, but rarely is there an opportunity to see them take on the role of ‘performer’ while on campus. To not only witness their performance, but to perform alongside faculty who are mentors to me was a deeply meaningful experience. Watching the faculty in their improvised section – embodying different intensities of movement, I was inspired by their collaboration and connection with each other. There were moments when incredible soloists would intertwine with another performer, producing magnificent moments of duets that required trust amongst the dancers. Spontaneous lifts in partners occurred, revealing that dancers fell into a trust that the other would be there to catch them. Observing this section, it was beautifully representative of the different paces we take in our daily lives – intensities of movement ranging from light and connective, to moderate, and eventually building to vigorous, explosive movement intensities.
After a week of rehearsing, we jumped into technical rehearsals, incorporating the live musicians, lights, costumes, and filming. The sound score was created by Dr. Salvatore Macchia and performed live by percussionist, Professor Ayano Kataoka and audio engineer, Jazer Giles, offering a unique blend between live percussion and recorded music. Cristian Solimeno joined the project to create an aesthetically legible film of Convergence to communicate the design of the METRIC study and preliminary findings to a larger audience.
It was eye-opening to me to observe how the art of filming works. You can dramatically change the way the scene or movement action gets conveyed to viewers through the camera angle at which you film from. As Solimeno worked, he planned out the order of the scenes, paying close attention to how one action carries into the next. In a section where dancers stood in a line formation, Solimeno paned down the vertical line focusing on our faces. As he reached the end of the line, he paned down to the last dancer’s hand, which he then followed to change direction, and move attention to the next dance section coming in. What I particularly appreciated in the filming process was how Solimeno communicated his plan as he filmed, essentially choreographing the film as he captured footage. His communication was helpful when informing dancers of what the overarching scene will look like in the film, and what scenes dancers should be prepared to transition into next given the short amount of time. On set, time is crucial, thus being prepared to jump into the next section when Solimeno was ready was an integral part of a successful process.
This experimental evening-length work was a rigorous but rewarding process. It was amazing to see how every part of this work came together and fit like pieces in a puzzle.
Leaving the fall semester behind for the winter break, my cohort and I had only rehearsed with each other, and we had yet to rehearse with the Five College faculty and work with the live musicians. After returning from winter break, we had two weeks to converge all the crucial elements together, from learning more choreographed movement sections, practicing with the live sound score, to performing for film. The overall success of this project was dependent on each contributor bringing their expertise to the work and being patient while all aspects fused together.
On the days of filming, Totman Performance Lab transformed to embody this aesthetic of the clinical trial, translated into a performance space. Wings were set up on the sides of the stage and a group of chairs was placed in the downstage right corner near the musicians, where dancers would sit and observe those on the stage during movement sections. The musicians stood on white marley that was laid to the side of stage right. Camera crew members stood on high blocks placed throughout Totman, allowing for multiple wide-shots and angles to be captured, in addition to Solimeno’s more focused shots of dancers and musicians. Props were used, such as a clothing rack being rolled onto the stage for two dancers to put on lab coats in the opening scene. The lighting of the space changed depending on the scene, but maintained a consistent, dimly lit, cool tone. Dancers were costumed with metallic pants and black tops for most of the work. During a solo phrase, however, one dancer added on the accessory of a sheer, white jacket that resembled a lab coat. A projector was fixed to the ceiling in Totman, to allow for three performers’ data to be projected onto the stage floor. These data were representative of the three performers’ (Aiken, Diewald, and Riegel) vitals, being measured live through wearable sensors on stage.
The process of creating this project was a true example of convergence; many parts uniting together to create another world. I look forward to the official release of the film to further see how the camera conveyed this artistic representation of the METRIC study design and its preliminary findings. I am grateful for this opportunity to perform with live musicians, experience the art of filming, and dance with my peers and Five College faculty to bring Convergence to life.